A report released Wednesday says the government paid fair market value for thousands of acres behind the McNary Dam, possibly chilling a local movement to return control of the Columbia riverfront to cities and counties.
But a critic says the Department of the Army’s report on how it acquired 34 miles of shoreline through the Tri-Cities falls short.
The report released to the public is missing an exhibit that supporters of transferring the shoreline to local control believe could help make their case that Congress should re-convey the lands.
“If it were a term paper, it would be deemed late and incomplete,” said Brad Fisher, a former Kennewick mayor who is working with retired U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings of Pasco and retired TRIDEC executive Gary Petersen to lobby Congress to transfer the shoreline to Tri-City agencies.
Congress ordered the Army to account for how it acquired the shoreline in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. It set March 1 deadline, which fell in the middle of the transfer to a new presidential administration and appointment of a new Secretary of the Army.
The Army issued the lengthy document on June 8. U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, R-Sunnyside, released it to the public six days later but without the final exhibit.
The transfer request applies only to the Columbia shoreline and does not affect either the Snake or Yakima rivers.
If it were a term paper, it would be deemed late and incomplete.
Brad Fisher, former Kennewick mayor
The report clocks in at at more than 100 pages but is missing “Exhibit 7.” A physical copy is reportedly too large to transmit by email or through a file transfer service. Newhouse’s office released the summary and the first six exhibits.
Copies of the missing exhibit have not yet reached the Tri-Cities. A spokesman for Newhouse promised to acquire the missing section and mail copies.
Fisher said without Exhibit 7, the report offers an incomplete picture of how the government acquired land along the Columbia River in the middle of the 20th century.
Newhouse, who is championing the return-the-shoreline movement on the region’s behalf, acknowledged the document is incomplete.
“There is still work to do to ensure a transfer is done properly, with all necessary information and documentation on the land in question,” Newhouse said in a prepared statement.
“The release of this report, as required by law, is a positive and necessary step forward for the possible re-conveyance of this property and ensuring broad community support.”
Generally, the Army’s report addresses land acquired to construct McNary Dam, which was authorized by Congress in 1945. The dam spans the Columbia at River Mile 290. Lake Wallula extends to Richland on the Columbia and to River Mile 10 on the Snake.
The government acquired nearly 40,000 acres to complete the project. The Corps purchased the land from willing owners and condemned other sites from unwilling ones, according to the Army report. All received fair market value for their property.
A federal court approved market prices for the properties that were acquired through condemnation. In four other cases, owners donated land to the government. The federal government owned four additional parcels prior to the McNary Dam project.
Fisher said the report concentrates solely on purchases associated with McNary Dam and not the land acquired by condemnation for flood control following devastating floods in 1948. He speculates that information is in the missing exhibit.
“We think Exhibit 7 is going to have a lot of good information,” he said.
The issue of payment is key in the shoreline return movement.
If land was acquired by condemnation, it strengthens the argument that the government could, even should, return it to local cities and counties to manage for the benefit of their citizens.
But if it was chiefly acquired through market rate purchases, taxpayer equity factors into the equation and could make it difficult for Congress to gift it to local governments.
Fisher said the report has not changed the argument that Congress should re-convey ownership of the Tri-City shoreline to local governments that already bear the brunt of managing them under supervision of the Army Corps.
Kennewick, Richland and Pasco spend a combined $2 million annually to maintain the shoreline, where they operate parks and other amenities. Cities secure approval from the Army Corps for improvements and even some maintenance projects, causing local officials to complain about micromanagement.
Fisher is hopeful Congress will authorize a free simple transfer this year.
The plan has wide support in the Tri-Cities and some opposition.
All local governments, including counties, cities and ports, have expressed varying degrees of support for the shoreline effort. Critics fear transferring ownership to local government will translate into a rush to crowd the local waterfront with commercial development.
The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation could be a formidable opponent if the return advances.
At a joint meeting with Richland leaders last year, the tribe indicated it fears a transfer could harm tribal sites and interfere with its federal treaty rights. Both Richland and the Port of Kennewick, which partner with the tribes on waterfront issues, say they will give strong consideration to the tribes’ concerns.